- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

DES MOINES, Iowa — There are no touch screens, and hanging chads won’t be a problem.

Iowans on Thursday night will gather for the Democratic caucuses — standing in the corners of schools and basements for their favorite contenders. They will persuade their neighbors based on months of questioning the candidates at town hall forums and after poring through detailed policy proposals and enduring hundreds of TV ads, automated phone calls and negative mailers.

“You don’t win the caucus the night of the caucus; you win it by all the hard work and organization,” said Gordon Fischer, who was chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party in 2004 when Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts emerged as the winner.

The caucuses this week begin the presidential nominating season for both parties, and the contest for the Democratic nominee is tight. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards are virtually tied in most polls. Three lesser-known candidates — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut — are scrambling in hopes of a surprise third-place finish.

The Republicans also hold caucuses, but their process allows a secret vote and takes less time.

The Democratic caucus process is distinct from primary elections. The caucus voters make their decisions in public, meet at the same time statewide and do not determine the winner by one person, one vote.

Mrs. Clinton told voters in Story City on Friday they hold a “weighty responsibility” because the world is watching “to see us pick our president, starting right here in Iowa.”

She suggested the caucus process is not fully inclusive and told voters to make their decisions for those who cannot participate Thursday evening because they are working or serving in the military. “By going to the caucuses, you’ll be standing up for others who can’t be there,” she said.

As a standard campaign line here, candidates ask voters to make them their second choice if not their first.

“If you’re not caucusing for me, caucus for somebody,” Mr. Obama said this weekend. “I hope you caucus for me. I think that would be the wise thing to do, but if not, make me your second choice.”

He added: “You will have more to do with choosing the next leader of the United States than anybody else on the planet.”

Rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat who has endorsed Mr. Edwards, reminded voters Friday night that some candidates won’t meet the 15 percent viability standard and that the supporters of those candidates will need to make a second choice.

He told Edwards supporters to arrive armed with the 80-page campaign book detailing Mr. Edwards’ policy positions. “This is your caucus bible,” he said.

Campaign volunteers are spending hours categorizing hundreds of voters based on their second choice.

“I’ve made thousands of calls,” said Mary Ann Schuldt of Sioux City, a Clinton precinct captain. It’s the first time she has been politically active, but she is keeping meticulous notes from her conversations with registered Democrats. Should those voters need to make a second choice, organizers will know who they are and work to persuade them to support Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Fischer, an Obama supporter, said all of the campaigns have created organizations in Iowa that are strong beyond precedent. He predicted record turnout, up to 200,000 Democrats.

The last hotly contested caucuses before 2004 was in 1988, when Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri won but failed to get the party nod. In 1976, the imaginary candidate “uncommitted” won more delegates in the caucuses than eventual nominee Jimmy Carter, who placed second.

No matter how confusing the process may be for outsiders, Iowans are proud of their status and view their process as an important responsibility. “It’s just something we do here,” said Story City businesswoman Jennifer Jarvis.

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